Al Shabab return to Saudi summit

A quick look at the names of the title winners of the Zain Saudi Professional League over the last five seasons suggested that only two teams should have been in the running for top domestic honours in Saudi Arabia this campaign. During this period, Al Hilal and Al Ittihad had divided the spoils exclusively between them, with 13-time champions Al Hilal taking the title three times versus two first-place finishes for their Jeddah-based rivals.

The stats may have made it look like a foregone conclusion but Al Shabab, who now have six league crowns of their own, clearly decided the time was ripe to steal the latter two’s thunder and duly blew the competition away. takes a look back at a spectacular season for the boys from Riyadh, who managed to seize the championship without losing a single game.

Longing for the title
Taking their place in the Saudi top flight in 1976, Al Shabab had to wait 15 long years before claiming their first title, but once they had the crown in their grasp there was no getting it off them. After victory in the 1990/91 race, they then went on to repeat the feat in the next two seasons to become the first Saudi side to win three league championships in a row. For the next decade, proceedings were dominated by the triumvirate of Al Hilal, Al Nasr and Al Ittihad, but Al Shabab battled back to win a fourth title in 2003/04 and add a fifth in 2005/06.

This season’s success is the side’s first under the new league system, with a conventional round-robin competition having replacing the old two-stage championship where the title was awarded to the winners of a final-four knockout competition. What's more, not only did Al Shabab finish the 26-match season unbeaten, they ended on the sweetest of highs by clinching the title on the home turf of fierce rivals Al Ahli.

A prescription for success
For many years, Al Shabab had enjoyed a distinctly Latin flavour in the dugout, tending to favour coaches from Brazil and Argentina as well as Portugal. Ambitious club president Khaled Al Batlan recently decided a change of direction was in order and turned to northern Europe, putting his faith in legendary former Belgium goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme.

Though his first attempt to sign Preud’homme broke down, Al Batlan’s persistence paid off and the respected coach, who had already tasted silverware as a club supremo in his homeland and the Netherlands, was finally enticed to Riyadh last year.

A good relationship between the strategist and club administrators gave Preud’homme the security he needed to start making changes. His first moves were to improve Al Shabab’s effectiveness up front while bolstering the defensive line, issues that were resolved by some canny signings in several areas of the pitch.

At the start of the 2011/12 season, Al Shabab signed Uzbekistan captain and two-time Asian Footballer of the Year Server Djeparov, as well as fellow midfielder Fernando Menegazzo from Brazil. Ghana’s Ibrahim Yattara and Brazil’s Wendel Geraldo to strengthen the side’s attacking play, while a third Brazilian, Marcelo Tavares, came to bolster the backline.

The wisdom of these foreign signings was amply demonstrated over the course of the campaign, as Preud’homme fashioned a flexible, attacking side that claimed 19 victories and seven draws. Their final tally was thus an impressive 64 points, which equalled the record set by Al Hilal last season.

Al Shamrani shines again
While much of the credit must go to the astute tactics of the Belgian coach, star striker Nassir Al Shamrani also firmly deserves to share the glory. The 28-year-old forward continued his prolific form of recent years, with his 21 goals making him the division’s joint top marksmen alongside Al Ahli hitman Victor Simoes. It is the fourth time in five seasons that the man they call ‘The Earthquake’ has claimed the leading scorer’s accolade.

Not only has Al Shamrani scored goals aplenty, he has struck them when they really matter. Most notable was the hat-trick in the penultimate match against Al Ansar that kept his side at the top of the table, which was then followed with a goal in the final game against Al Ahli to help seal the championship.

“Being named top scorer was a blessing, but my team-mates helped me keep putting it in the net,” said the ever-modest striker, clearly keen to share the credit for his award. “I always aim is to put the team first, but I’ll also try as hard as I can to keep finishing at the top of the list!”

The stat
16 – The number of goals Al Shabab conceded in 26 games, which gave them the division’s best defensive record. Their total tally of 50 goals made theirs the third most prolific attack.

Have your say
What did you make of Al Shabab’s performance this season? In your view, who made the biggest contribution to the team’s successful campaign?